Discussing music critique in the modern-day and what the acceptable limits of this very important but subjective profession are.
“I don’t mind criticism a bit - the critics are always wrong…but they are always right in the sense that they make one re-examine one’s artistic conscience.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald.
If you carried out a random poll across the many listeners of Nigerian music, the word “critic” would most likely emerge as an antonym for “admire.” It’s no fault of theirs, really. Words are only a product of the context and climate they are used in. The average Nigerian musician doesn’t take criticism very well, and in some cases, dedicate full songs to the people who have dared to voice out displeasure at their sound or an aspect of their craft. In turn, this attitude rubs off on the adoring, or in many cases, rabid fans who decide to pick up where their idols stop and continue this war against dissenting opinions ー it doesn’t matter if the opinion came from a good place or from malice ー the enemy is the man who stands on the other side. At the end of the day, all that’s left are extremes and no middle ground.
A couple of weeks ago, Cruel Santino released his highly anticipated sophomore album Subaru Boys: FINAL HEAVEN to understandably mixed reactions. The buildup to the project’s release was accompanied by a sweet and exciting tension that increased with each snippet and video that appeared on the internet. When the tracklist and the guest artists were revealed, the excitement hit a fever pitch. While Santino’s debut album Mandy & The Jungle was an eclectic and exciting blend of varying genres and sounds, Subaru Boys, even without any preleased singles, looked to build on Mandy’s strengths and even offer much more.
From the opening few seconds of “MATILDA”, the album opener, the listener is immediately transported to a world filled with robotic voiceovers, gushing waterfalls and defence drills against unknown but seemingly dangerous enemies. It's an interesting marriage of countless anime references and video game effects held up by music. The music, however, seems to be the bone of contention. The album, like any other, was met with mixed reactions. Some fans praised Santino’s attention to detail and the level of work that went into creating the sonic world. Others claimed that the music was great and one of the best things to have come out of these parts in a while. On the other hand, some people complained that the songs were downright bad, or that they struggled to hear or comprehend much of what the Santino was saying ー a sentiment which is quite hilarious to me because I don’t even attempt to hear what Santino sings or raps. His music just passes the vibe check for me.
But this isn’t an album review. Instead, it is my take on music critique in the modern-day and what the acceptable limits of this very important but subjective profession are. Perhaps the most striking and stereotypical image of “the critic” in recent times is Anton Ego, the restaurant reviewer in Disney-Pixar’s highly acclaimed and award-winning feature film Ratatouille. With a permanent scowl on his face and an office shaped like a coffin, he is presented as an eternal pessimist looking to cut down restaurants with scathing reviews while uplifting his divine tongue and taste. The message is clear: the critic is dignified and above the tastes of the common man, sensing and experiencing things in a different way ー a superior way.
In the music industry, music or culture journalists assume this role with an eagerness. Everybody listens to music, yes. But how many can listen to it and find the words to describe how good or disappointing a song, album or even an artist is? Who else but us ー yes, us ー can put words to melodies and paint an image comprising sounds? That’s right, no one. Music journalists are not stans that defend their favourites. They are cultured reviewers whose impartial ears and hands hear and talk about music from a totally honest and unbiased place. The only problem with this is that it’s a fat lie. Writers, like the rest, are human beings with their own biases. These personal opinions and feelings will always pour on the page.
Over a week ago, a relatively popular Nigerian music journalist and critic shared his views on Subaru Boys: Final Heaven, and he did it with his best Anton Ego impression. His review of Santino’s latest work was laced with a number of quotes and claims that range from laughable to downright disrespectful. There were claims that the singer and rapper seemed more obsessed with looking like a genius than being an actual one. There were also claims that the music wasn’t created for mainstream Nigerian listeners, a sentiment which I personally consider highly debatable. We are in 2022, there’s almost no such thing as a mainstream Nigerian ‘taste’. It is true that Afrobeats is the most prevalent sound, but even that isn’t even a distinct sound anymore. It is clearly an evolving sound of many parts and tunes sourced from several places. But I digress.
Asides from labelling Santino a wannabe genius, there was also the inflammatory claim that "A lot of these alte guys acted like overpraised spoiled kids, who couldn’t handle the realities of the real world, where everything isn’t catered to elevating them upon a pedestal of would-be pristine creativity." This statement was met with a lot of backlash and understandably so. It is true that the artists are central to their art and their personal experiences are huge influences on their creative direction. But, if an artist or creative didn’t reveal bits in an interview or elsewhere about certain aspects of their life why write so assertively about your assumptions? Santino’s reply to this line of thought buttresses this fact.
This journalist wasn’t the only one with critical opinions, however, although his raised a lot of dust. On Twitter, a platform that is increasingly becoming the hub for forming music opinions as well as dismantling previously formed notions, the reactions to the album stood on two extremes. At the height of these conversations, it seemed like you were either for or against the album with no space for people who sought to stay in the middle. On the “for” side, the prevailing opinion was that Santi had created a masterpiece and that people who didn’t feel the same were not in tune. The “against” faction was dismissive of the album, reducing the artist’s effort to gibberish and just a bunch of incomprehensible records.
Personally, I am not entirely sold on Subaru Boys: Final Heaven, to be honest. I think it has its high points: the production is heavenly, the Gus Dapperton features are brilliant, and there is “Mermaid Aqua” which is my absolute favourite. It has what I consider its low points as well, but they all just add up to my personal listening preferences. Objectivity, that’s all I am asking for. See the merits without imposing your own internalised notions on the general public. Everyone talks about how difficult it is to draw the line when appraising art, especially since it is a topic that deals extensively with the feelings and moods of both creator and consumer. But it is pertinent to realize that certain things are not necessary to your appraisal - and when you are a person with a fairly huge platform capable of impacting cultural discourse, there’s even more responsibility on you.
The problem with being Anton Ego is that you end up missing the point. Anton Ego isn’t the hero, at least not at first. Instead, he is a lesson on the dangers of aggressively sticking to your old ways, with no room for change, that you miss the chance to experience new things and see the beauty in concepts you are not too familiar with. Ratatouille says relax, it is possible that in the teeming rat populace, there is one who cares about cuisine. Yes, it is highly unlikely, but that doesn’t mean you should go around scouring the thesaurus for big, harsh words to describe a person and their art. Instead, the immense possibility that one clean rat who knows how to cook provides means that it is rewarding to keep your eyes open and your heart ready to receive.